Project Management Institute

Ways to create a strong project team


by Joan Knutson, Contributing Editor

REMEMBER WHEN we were kids and played softball with the gang? Everyone showed up on the field. Sometimes we got to be captain; other times somebody beat us out. Each captain picked one person for his team in rotation, starting with the person who was the “best.” Or who was liked the most. Whoever was picked last was grudgingly accepted onto the team. Remember how badly you wanted to be picked and how demoralizing it was if you were last?

Why isn’t building a project team similar? The onus appears to be on the project manager’s shoulders to cajole and induce people to be on his or her team and, once on the team, to play to win. Our current business culture needs to encourage potential project players to want to be picked and to want to become productive team members. I offer six techniques you can use to develop a strong, coordinated project team: Build a broad-based team. Establish a formal “manager.” Prepare a project plan. Involve team members in decisions. Keep team members informed. Build and maintain team spirit.

These suggestions are being made both to the project manager and to the executive. The project manager, acting as the captain of the team, can’t do it alone; in some situations, the project manager needs the support of the executive. The executive is the coach in this metaphor. Each of the six techniques, discussed below, is not only a description of what the project manager can do to build a strong project team but also several suggestions to the executive as to how he or she should support the project manager in this effort.

Build a Broad-Based Team

Project Manager: Choose the best people available to play on your team. By best, we mean people who are known for getting the job done; people who are team players; people who bring a diverse set of skills, experience, and personalities to your project. Sometimes we are not given the choice, but are told who will be assigned to our project. If that is the case, familiarize yourself with each individual’s reputation—what other people think of them, both technically and as a team player. Evaluate each person’s input. Then observe and listen to this project player and make your own judgment.

Ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of each individual on the team. Since there is no “perfect” person, becoming familiar with each person’s weaknesses and strengths will make it easier for you to assign and to work with each team player. However, if there are person(s) on your team who cannot hold their own, have them reassigned both for your benefit and for theirs. In some cases, this may be easier said than done. Attempt to reassign them to their functional managers in exchange for a qualified player or a future draft choice. If this is not feasible, move them to another assignment within your project in which they can be more productive—or do the least damage.

Executive: What we are asking the project manager to do in order to build a broad-based team is often extremely politic. Influencing a functional manager to assign a specific project player to a project or “returning” a bad match to their functional manager in exchange for a more appropriate contributor may be a task beyond the political clout of the project manager. It is you, as an executive, who often has the political relationship and influence with the functional manager to facilitate the correct assignments to the project team. Encourage your project managers to come to you with these problems. Don’t make the project manager feel like a failure because of not being able to solve a problem that is unsolvable at his or her management level. And if you cannot solve the problem, be honest with the project manager and work out a strategy to accommodate the situation.

Establish a Formal Manager

Project Manager: Note the adjectives before Manager are “a” and “formal.” “A” implies singular. Project team members cannot divide their responsibilities among different captains. There must be one, and only one, person running the project.

“Formal” means that this manager has been officially delegated that responsibility and authority. If you are the project manager, make sure that everyone on the team understands your role, who assigned you to this role, why it is necessary to have a single point of control, and how you plan to exercise your authority as project manager.

Executive: This is where you can lend the project manager your strong support. At the beginning of the project, issue an announcement of the assignment of the project manager to this specific project, clearly defining his or her roles, responsibilities and authorities. But just backing the project manager at the beginning of the project is not adequate. As an executive, you need to continue to support the project manager during the entire effort. Don’t “disappear” when times in the project get rough. Stand beside the project manager and reaffirm the decisions that he or she has made which legitimately fall within the authority that you gave.

Prepare a Project Plan

Project Manager: The project plan lists all the tasks that need to be performed in order to complete the project. It also defines the role that each project team member has for each task, when the task will begin, when it will end, what deliverable will be produced, and how much money (or effort) has been estimated for the task. Even though the project plan is a technical project management tool, it also facilitates communication to each team player because it clarifies the role and responsibility he or she is to assume. In a manner of speaking, it indicates when I am up at bat and when I am in the outfield.

Executive: The project plan takes time to produce. You, as an executive, instinctively want the project to begin real work as quickly as possible. You are torn between whether to allow the project manager the time to complete the project plan or to start the actual tasks on the project. If you elect to start work on the project, you are being short sighted. The project plan provides the direction for all the team members. It clearly defines their involvement, task by task. Clear roles and responsibilities encourage a stronger project team. Require that the project plan be completed. It will serve the project manager and the project well in the long term.

Involve Team Members in Decisions

Project Manager: This rule is closely related to the one above. Team members should be involved in the creation of the project plan. When it is necessary to revise plans, inform the team members of the scope and the potential impact of the problem. They may have ideas about how to resolve the problem. At minimum, inform team members about the reasons for the change in plans and the additional support you, the project manager, need from them to win the game. It is their expertise that will make the difference.

Executive: Yes, there will be meetings, formal and informal. Yes, there will be e-mails and phone calls. But the time spent will ensure collaboration and consensus among the project team, which will ensure a stronger project team that is working to common goals: time frame, cost, and quality.

Keep Team Members Informed

Project Manager: Nothing is more frustrating to team members than changing the game plan without their knowledge. Be sure the signals are in place so that when that game plan changes each player recognizes the signal. The project manager must have the respect of the team should it become necessary to change the game plan and not immediately provide detailed explanations. This can be done only in those situations where the players trust the project manager, and when the project manager does not abuse the privilege.

Executive: You, in turn, must trust the project manager. Nothing is more damaging than for the project manager to make a judgment call and for you, as the executive, to refute it and make the project manager change the action plan. What you and the project manager discuss behind closed doors relative to this decision or relative to how decisions will be made in the future, is your right. However, don’t degrade the project manager’s reputation and trust level with the project team. Also be sure to keep the project manager informed. Without timely and accurate information from you, the project manager may make a wrong decision, which will damage his or her image with the team.

Build and Maintain Team Spirit

Project Manager: If you become apathetic or de-motivated, your team will become apathetic or de-motivated. Not every negative development needs to be shared with the team. If it does not impact the team members’ ability to perform the job successfully, keep the downside to yourself. That’s part of the job.

If you are not a rah-rah type of manager, don’t pretend. You can still impart that sense of professionalism and urgency without it. However, you might want to find someone on the team to be a cheerleader. That’s the person who sets up the Milestone Party or the Friday Beer Bust. A well-timed and deserved “Thank You” can go a long, long way.

Executive: As much as the project manager needs to give the team an ongoing energy boost to keep motivation and commitment high, where does he or she get that energy? Project managers, too, need a cheerleader. And that job falls to you as the coach. Take time for short informal chats, for those social lunches or coffee breaks. Also, no matter how tight the budget, a beer bust or a compensatory afternoon off will return the investment tenfold.

A STRONG TEAM is the nucleus of a project and can ensure its success. The season is a long one. The team members are asked to play in close quarters, sometimes under great stress. Project manager, as team captain, give them your technical guidance, your project management expertise, your enthusiasm, and support them as team members. And executive, as coach, remember:You are not the Sage-on-the-Stage in this relationship; you are the Guide-on-the-Side. Setting direction, providing support, and removing obstacles should be done quietly, professionally, and with minimal thought of visibility. Do this so that the project manager can be seen as a competent leader and so that he or she can build and maintain a strong project team. With the reputation that you help the project manager build, the next time this same project manager is pulling together a new project team, there will be players who are fighting to get on that team. ■


Joan Knutson is founder and president of Project Mentors (a Provant company), a San Francisco-based project management training and consulting firm. She can be reached at +415-955-5777. Send comments on this column to

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

March 2000 PM Network



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